What has gotten into Bobby Orr? Already the National Hockey League's best defenseman—the alltime best, most people would say—the Boston Bruins' superchild entered the new year leading the league in scoring. We can now expect a pitcher who will win a batting championship, a quarterback who will gallop for more yardage than Gale Sayers and a guard who will lead the NBA in rebounding. Before Orr, or B.O., as Bostonians date their ante-Bobby remarks about the Bruins, no defenseman ever led NHL scorers after the first few games of the season. Defensemen, after all, are supposed to help keep pucks out of the net, not put them in.
Orr is doing both. He has scored 11 goals and assisted on 45 more for a total of 56 points, seven more than Phil Goyette of St. Louis, the No. 2 scorer. Altogether, Bobby has been on the ice for 88 of the 131 goals the Bruins have scored—68%. And with the season reaching the halfway mark, Orr needs only nine points to establish a new season record for scoring by a defenseman. And consider this: if Orr can maintain his pace of 1.5 points per game, he will finish the season with about 115 points. In its 52-year history the NHL has had only one 100-point player, Orr's teammate Phil Esposito, whose 126 just last season was considered phenomenal.
Defensively—and defensemen must be defensemen first—Orr's statistics are more impressive than ever, and he has been brilliant, of course, since first skating onto the Boston Garden ice in 1966 at age 18. Despite playing about 65% of every game, Bobby has been on the ice for only 42 of the 103 goals the opposition has scored on the Bruins—40%.
Primarily because of Orr's class, the Bruins are only four points behind the first-place New York Rangers in the East Division. "Considering everything that has happened to us so far," said Boston Coach Harry Sinden last week, "I really couldn't be any happier. Second place looks pretty good right now." The Bruins started the year by losing Teddy Green, their intimidating All-Star defenseman, went without the fiery mod center, Derek Sanderson, for five weeks, and are still awaiting Winger Ron Murphy's recovery from a shoulder injury.
What the Bruins would have done without Orr is frightful to contemplate. During the crises he rallied them. "Here's a kid who's only 21 years old," says Boston Goalie Gerry Cheevers, "and he's keeping us all alive and well. He's got to win the Hart Trophy as the most valuable player, the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman and the Vezina Trophy as the best goaltender." Best goaltender? "Yeah," Cheevers said. "Bobby has stopped more shots this year than any goalie in the league."
Such remarks have not brought any displays of temperament or conceit from Orr, although he is probably the No. 1 superstar in his game and the youngest superstar in professional sports. "I'm in my fourth season now," Bobby says, "and I think it's only natural that I've learned some things about people. I'm wiser now, I know that, and I handle situations more assertively than I did last year or the year before that. And don't forget, I'm very lucky."
There are sound reasons why Orr has become more assertive this season. For one thing, he has played almost entirely injury-free, although at the moment his lower lip looks like a piece of raw hamburger. The lip has been sliced open three times in the last two weeks, requiring a total of 28 stitches to keep it closed, even temporarily. However, Bobby has skated without any trouble from his vulnerable knees. "I don't think about them anymore," Bobby says. "Early in the season I went through two players, and they cracked me good. Real good. If the knees didn't go then, they never will."
As a result, Orr has become not only a stronger skater but also a shiftier skater. "Bobby's like O. J. Simpson on skates," says Gary Bergman of the Detroit Red Wings. "He is the fastest and the strongest skater the National Hockey League has ever seen," adds St. Louis Goaltender Jacques Plante. Esposito, not a very graceful skater because of his height, agrees: "If I could skate like Orr I'd be All-Week every week of the year."
Another reason for Orr's new aggressiveness is that he has slightly altered his style of attack. In previous years, instead of shooting the puck or trying to break for the goal himself, he too often would pass the puck to a teammate. "I was always after him to shoot the puck more himself," says Sinden, "but then he'd go out and pass it. He scored his goals, but he could have scored a lot more." This year Orr has become more of a shooter, although not necessarily at the expense of his passing. So far Bobby has taken 195 shots. Only Esposito, a gunner's gunner who spends a lot of time near the goalmouth, has shot more often. Twice Orr has made 11 shots in a game—an extraordinary number. And when Bobby is not shooting he is setting up goals; in a game in which he shot only once, he made four assists.
It has become clear, too, that Orr is the real leader of the Bruins. He does not wear a C for captain or A for assistant captain on his jersey, but there is no doubt among the Bruins that Bobby is the spark. "He hasn't had to say anything to make this leadership thing felt," says Sanderson. "He has an innate quality that doesn't require words."
Naturally, Orr's offensive strikes have forced rival coaches to devise special anti-Orr defenses, none of which seems to have worked too well so far. "You can't double-team him because he'll spot the player you leave uncovered and hit him with a pass," says Red Wing Coach Sid Abel. "But you can give him special attention." Most teams like to send a good forechecker, someone persistent like Dave Keon of Toronto, Ralph Backstrom of Montreal or Michel Briere of Pittsburgh, to harass Orr in his own end—which rarely works, either.
"If you'll notice," says Don Awrey, who is Orr's defense partner, "Bobby always is isolated when he skates out of our zone. There's never a Bruin near him. He likes to have plenty of room to operate, and when he has it who can stop him? This is the first year we've played on the same defense, and it took me a while to keep myself away from him. When I played with Teddy Green last year we always backed each other up. Bobby, though, wants to go head to head."
About the only criticism of Orr as a hockey player is an occasional gripe that he concentrates too much on offense and forgets that defensemen must play defense. The pros themselves consider this nonsense. "Sure, he leads the rush," says Gordie Howe, "but he's so quick that he's the first one back on defense. He's got the legs." Stan Mikita adds, "Until Orr gets up across his blue line he thinks defense."
Eddie Johnston, who shares the Boston goaltending assignment with Cheevers, offers the best rebuttal. "They say Bobby doesn't play defense. Heck, he makes hockey a 40-minute game for us. He's got the puck 20 minutes by himself. What better defense is there? If Orr has the puck, we're going to score—not the other guys."
Orr himself shrugs off the criticism. "I hear it, and I read it, mostly in Montreal," he said, "but it doesn't bother me. Everybody has a style. Mine just happens to be offense."
Bobby's offensive thrusts have made him the most electrifying player in the game and a bigger box-office attraction this year than the old champ, Bobby Hull. When Orr starts off on one of his rink-end-to-rink-end dashes, the crowds rise and roar. "Bobby's dynamic," says Esposito. "The fans don't care when I carry the puck or when Jean Beliveau or Stan Mikita or Rod Gilbert carry it. But when Orr carries it they're up on their feet."
Last Saturday night Orr lured a season's high crowd of 14,163 to The Forum in Los Angeles for a game between the Bruins and the Kings, the worst team in the league, and Bobby set up the first and last Boston goals in a 6-2 victory. "These people came to see Orr, there's no doubt about that," said the deposed King coach, Hal Laycoe.
Harry Sinden agreed. "In the buildings that are full," he said, "I'd say that 95% of the people come to see Orr and 5% come to see the home team. In the other buildings, well, they aren't empty when Orr comes to town. You hear talk about the $200,000 athlete. Well, Orr's going to be the first $200,000 hockey player."
Bobby, of course, already has revolutionized the salary structure in hockey. With Attorney Alan Eagleson, Orr negotiated a three-year contract before the 1968-69 season, and when rumors of the terms (about $65,000 a year plus other benefits) reached the hockey hinterlands almost all NHL players demanded—and many received—more lucrative contracts.
A bachelor, Orr does not need $200,000. Not yet, anyway. But if he scores more than 100 points, wins the scoring title and happens to win the Stanley Cup for the Bruins, he just might get it.